12 Creepy Documentaries for Crime/Thriller Writers

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

I’ve become slightly obsessed with documentaries in the past couple of years. My obsession began with one of the most well-known documentaries, Making a Murderer. After that, I was hooked. One of the best things about documentaries is that they educate and entertain you. If you’re a writer, then this is going to be a must for 2019.

The following are not only my favorite documentaries, but also excellent documentaries to watch if you’re a crime/thriller writer.

1. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Remember the 2003 movie Monster starring Charlize Theron? Well, this is the documentary about the same woman: Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer who murdered seven men in Florida. She claimed all seven murders were in self-defense. This documentary showcases interviews with Aileen, and you can see the serious mental instability of this woman. If your character claims self-defense when killing someone, you might want to watch this one.

Fun Fact: Did you know it only takes three murders to make you a serial killer? I had no idea. That would be an interesting premise for a novel: the knowledge that once you’ve murdered three people, you officially become a serial killer.

IMDb Rating: 7.1 stars

Available on Amazon Prime

2. The Innocent Man

I’m from Oklahoma and live an hour and a half away from Ada, Oklahoma, which is the setting for two gruesome murders conducted in 1984 and 1986. There was a lot of hype around this documentary, and it did not disappoint. Be sure to pay close attention, or you’ll get confused with the different “murderers.” I say it that way because two men were convicted of killing an Ada woman and released 12 years later when they were found not guilty due to DNA evidence. Now, here’s where it gets crazy: the 1984 and 1986 murders do have the same murderers, but they have the same problem: wrongly convicted men. What’s going on with the Ada police? Hmmm.

Fun fact: John Grisham wrote his first nonfiction book called The Innocent Man about these murders. He said, “If I had written this as a novel, no one would’ve believed it.”

IMDb Rating: 7.4 stars

Available on Netflix

3. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

This is certainly one of the scariest documentaries I’ve seen, especially the last moment in the film. I remember watching it and being so shocked that I had to rewind the ending to watch it again—and turn on my subtitles. The documentary starts out with a murder, and the thought is that a woman had killed him because, well, a woman was seen living in that house. You find out quickly, however, that the “woman” is just Robert Durst, a real estate guy, dressed up as a woman. But why would he do that? Oh, that’s a whooooooole other thing regarding his dead wife. Now he’s accused of murdering some man? Oh, this one gets crazy, so buckle up.

Fun Fact: Robert’s family owns the Durst Organization, which is one of the oldest family-run real estate companies in New York City. If you have a family saga situation going on in your novel, you’ll want to take copious notes during this one.

IMDb Rating: 8.7 stars

Available on Amazon Video, HBO Now, and VUDU

4. Manhunt: Unabomber

Hands down, one of the most sensational documentaries I’ve ever seen. If you don’t know the name Ted Kaczynski, then 1) I’d wonder if you were living under a rock, and 2) you gonna learn today! First off, this is a cinematic experience, which is quite different from most of the documentaries I’ve watched. You learn about the domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) through the eyes of the FBI profiler who found him. In fact, the profiler is the one who said that Ted was highly intelligent and probably had written some type of manifesto. Yeah, he totally did.

Creepy fact: Apparently, Ted and I have the same cursive style (which plays a major role in this documentary). We make the same F’s when writing. Yeesh.

IMDb Rating: 8.2 stars

Available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and VUDU

5. Amanda Knox

Prepare to be enraged with this one. Amanda Knox takes off to Italy, finds some hunk to sleep with, and what do you know? Her roommate winds up dead. What’s really creepy about this one is that 1) Amanda seems to act very unemotionally during everything, and 2) the murder was a sexually sadistic one. I’d love to know if you think Amanda did it.

Sad Fact: Amanda was in Perugia, Italy, and up until her involvement in a murder, there hadn’t been a single killing for 20 years in that town.

IMDb Rating: 7.0 stars

Available on Netflix

6. Making a Murderer

Definitely one of the most popular documentaries, Making a Murderer follows the story of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, two men who are in prison for the grisly murder of reporter Teresa Halbach. This was filmed over the period of 10 years if you can believe that. It’s believed that Brendan Dassey was led into a false confession when helping his uncle kill her. False confessions really fascinate me because they happen all the time and it’s intriguing to know what it takes to get someone to confess to something they didn’t do.

Fun Fact: The conspiracies of who killed Teresa Halbach are so big that there are several articles detailing them. Here’s my favorite one: 8 Mind-Blowing Making a Murderer Theories You Need to Read.

IMDb Rating: 8.7 stars

Available on Netflix

7. Into the Abyss

Death row is a very real place. Criminals sit there for years waiting for the moment when they never open their eyes again. Into the Abyss is a great documentary for those who might be writing about death row inmates or capital punishment. This film doesn’t follow Michael Perry, a man involved in a triple homicide, but instead asks the question, “Why do people—and the state—kill?” It’ll challenge your thinking of death row.

Quick Fact: As of December 20, 2018, there were 2,665 death row inmates in the United States.

IMDb Rating: 7.3 stars

Available on Amazon Video

8. The Staircase

I want to watch this one again. It actually sounds like a novel plot, but the premise follows Michael Peterson, a prolific American novelist, whose wife died in 2011 . . . from falling down the stairs. The weird part? It looked like she was bludgeoned to death, not as if she fell down a staircase. Did he kill her? You be the judge.

Fun Fact: Peterson claims to have been outside by their pool when Kathleen, his wife, fell down the stairs. Did he hear her cries? Could he have “saved” her if that’s how she died? Well, the jury has the answer to that.

IMDb Rating: 8.0 stars

Available on Netflix

9. Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist

My. All. Time. Favorite. Documentary. I was obsessed with this one and even bought the book, Pizza Bomber. The story starts with a guy just trying to deliver a pizza. But what’s around his neck? It’s a bomb. Yeah, a collar bomb cuffed to his neck. He’s screaming and trying to tell the police that it’s a bomb and someone put it on him. Then the bomb goes off, and that’s just the beginning. Enter Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the ringleader behind all of this. She is probably one of the most terrifying women I’ve ever seen on camera. If you’re working with a female antagonist, take notes every time Marj pops up on the screen.

Fun Fact: Trey Borzillieri, the co-director and narrator, spent years investigating the case, including interacting extensively with Diehl-Armstrong while she was in prison. Would you be willing to go that far in your novel?

IMDb Rating: 7.6 stars (deserves a 10)

Available on Netflix

10. The Keepers

Mom and I were in a hotel a few months back, and we were so tired from our trip. We decided to watch something before bed. Bad mistake. Three hours later, we were elbows deep into the world of a nun’s murder, lying priests, and pedophilia coverups. This story isn’t just about a nun’s death: it’s about covering up some messed-up things in Catholic churches. Definitely a good documentary if you’re wanting your story to take place in a religious setting.

Fun Fact: The Archdiocese of Baltimore responded to the series by adding a FAQ page to its website, in which it stated allegations that the archdiocese knew of Maskell's sexual abuse prior to 1992 were false speculation.

IMDb Rating: 7.6 stars

Available on Netflix

11. Wormwood

If your book has a sci-fi lean toward it, then saddle up for this one. It’s 1953, and an army scientist takes a fatal plunge from a window . .  nine days after he was covertly dosed with LSD by his CIA supervisor as part of Project MKUltra, Was his death a suicide, or did someone want to cover their tracks?

Fun Fact: Wormwood is an allusion to a Bible verse about a star that makes everything bitter,

IMDb Rating: 7.1 stars

Available on Netflix

12. The Confessions Tapes

Why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit? The Confession Tapes presents alternate views of how crimes could have taken place and features experts on false confessions, criminal law, and psychology. If you have a character who is coerced into a false confession, this teaches you so much! I learned a lot from this one and hope to one day use this as a plot device in a future novel.

Crazy Fact: A Wall Street Journal reporter found that “thirty-eight percent of exonerations for crimes allegedly committed by youth under 18 in the last quarter century involved false confessions.”

IMDb Rating: 7.6 stars

Available on Netflix

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An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has edited over 300 books and has launched several Amazon bestsellers for her clients. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, The Rotting (in Shivers in the Night), and The Suicide Tree. In her not-so-free time, she acts as organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society, volunteers at the Oklahoma County Jail, and obsesses over squirrels. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel and Wednesday.